Notebook is covering the Cannes Film Festival with an ongoing correspondence between critics Leonardo Goi and Lawrence Garcia, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Lawrence and Leo,
These days, big festivals seem so wary of disturbing attendees, whether on the business or press side, that radical works of cinema are rarely placed directly in the spotlight. Thus when we get a token art-first-commerce-second-(or not at all) bone thrown to a receptive viewer like me, I’m both delighted at the bold choice, and brought face to face with the fact it's not taken more often. (Past examples in Cannes: anything by Malick; Carax’s Holy Motors; Godard’s Goodbye to Language; Kiarostami et fils’ 24 Frames.)
This year the refreshment of audacity adventure was EO, a modern version of Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), a tale of humankind's kindness towards and, more often, mistreatment of a donkey, directed by 84-year-old Polish master Jerzy Skolimowski—presumably funded by his Avengers paycheck. At 86 minutes, and embracing a full suite of exuberant visual expressions—heavy red filters, drone footage, donkey-cam, and super wide angles, all courtesy of my new hero, cinematographer Michal Dymek—Skolimowski wisely and energetically distances himself from that classic by moving in tone and technique far away from Bresson’s unimpeachable clarity and unreplicable distillation and spiritual plane. Instead, we get an unruly and certainly uneven series of donkey experiences that embrace a more impressionistic and experiential style, radically placing the animal as the locus of our sympathy and perspective but not taking on its emotions or psychology—impossible and falsely anthropomorphic—and instead making wild stylistic gestures to approximate and bring us closer to the beauty of the animal, and the responding gentleness and absurdity of the human race.
Skolimowski adds to this his welcome sense of surrealism and humor as well, which dances between many poles: Malick’s freeform love of filming the world; Herzog’s wry awe at human folly and natural beauty; Okja’s brazen confrontation with animal experience and suffering. (To compare sensibilities and ethics, Ruben Östlund includes the beating to death of a donkey in Triangle of Sadness mostly as a brutal joke.) I can’t say it always worked—an awkward cameo by Isabelle Huppert encapsulates the film’s sense of the unexpected, but also its erratic success—but damn if it’s not a thrill to see a movie that leaps to show you new things, to do things differently—not to mention one that prefers animals to we beastly humans as protagonists in this world. It’s a film that has the bravery to use Bresson’s classic as a starting point to push the perspective of the cinema to places that still feel fresh, weird, and tender. In no way is this the work of an old man.
This spirit connects Eo to a film of an entirely different motivation, George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing. Following one of the great materialist action movies of our current era, the haptic, tactile, practical-effects based Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Miller has taken the pandemic as an opportunity to swerve in the opposite direction and embrace the total plastic artifice and imaginative freedom of computer generated imagery.
Adapted from an A.S. Byatt short story, the film pairs a solitary academic narratologist (Tilda Swinton) with an ancient djinn (Idris Elba) in a relationship founded on chains of his stories spanning centuries that oscillate between the spirit and his humans’ various love obsessions, and his desperate need to escape the confines of his bottled prison and the wish-enslavement of those who may release him. The purpose of the djinn’s episodic telling is to inspire wishes from the seemingly content narratologist, gradually drawing from her a desire to love and be beholden to and by another, and thus wish and thus free the djinn.
Unfortunately, despite the film’s fully committed fascination with themes of storytelling and love, Miller fails to evoke the dizzying labyrinth of discovering tales within tales one might find in a fervid cinema narratologist like, say, Raúl Ruiz; and the love called upon here is only illustrative and not pulsating, which frequently deflates the whole premise of artificial storyworlds inspiring desire. Nevertheless, it is hard not to be impressed by the director’s embrace of the freedom of CGI, allowing impossible camera movements, sprawling ancient spaces, and flowing cinematic stories freed from conventional dramaturgy. Even the normal contemporary scenes outside of the ancient tales often subtly reveal their stage-bound pandemic filming solution, with green screen Egypt and London exteriors. The closest comparison here are the films of Robert Zemeckis, who unlike those toiling away in the Marvel dungeons, sees computer imagery as a toolkit of cinematic expression and exploration, rendering inextricable the methods of imagined and conceptual storytelling with the technical boundaries pushed by a movies like A Christmas Carol and Welcome to Marwen. Miller here too leaps at the freedom, despite the praise for the arduously achieved physical action of his last picture, and despite the seeming lack of freedom of a pandemic shoot. Though almost top to bottom rendered in digital brushstrokes, Three Thousand Years of Longing boldly looks and moves nothing like the dominant big budget multiplex movies that are animated in everything but name. It’s crucial to see what filmmakers like he and Zemeckis can do with their toy box of artificiality, because they are among the few who are conceiving of films founded in the new possibilities they can create, rather than the replication and destruction of the world most other films turn to again and again as the guiding motif of digital moviemaking.
While at the age of 84, Skolimowski is going off on a wild fugue of filmmaking, and at 77, George Miller is still commanding the resources to build such artificial castles of imagination, David Cronenberg, age 79, is most clearly making “late films,” those often sublime distillations of years of art and craft, honed and sheared until the remaining material is stark and hermetic to the point of alienation. Cronenberg’s last picture, Maps to the Stars (2014), felt so stilted, its Bruce Wagner screenplay satirizing Hollywood so abstracted and out of touch, that the effect was indeed as if an alien came down to Los Angeles to film it. Seemingly bizarrely banal yet off-putting at the time, it feels surgically uncanny in retrospect, an evocative precursor to the kind of wonderful estrangement later found in Twin Peaks: The Return. Despite the overt lack of the director’s signature topic of body horror, its creepy, apocalyptic airlessness made that film feel like possibly a final one for the Canadian director; and indeed, afterwards he seemed to consider retiring from filmmaking.
Luckily, that idea didn’t hold. The filmmaker’s NFT last year, The Death of David Cronenberg, was a minimalist, nightmarish micro-masterpiece of dreamed mortality, and now comes Crimes to the Future, an austere, darkly funny, and strangely beautiful science-fiction vision of a world where physical pain has been eradicated and body organs are all anyone seems to care or talk about.
In dilapidated environs that no one seems to mind is dystopic—how nice that future might be!—the registration of body organs through their internal tattooing has been pioneered by performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensn), a man whose body is either spontaneously producing extra, useless organs, or he is willing them into creation, depending on who you ask, fans of his art or skeptics. Cloaked in a monk-like habit that keeps his body hidden, he seems to be withering away in direct proportion to his fame, the body sacrificing so that the spirit and soul can achieve satisfaction. His partner in art is Caprice (Léa Seydoux), who cuts him open in front of live audiences to remove the new organs, as well as films the operations. Soon, the government catches on to the benefits of officially tracking organs, though the two nerdy bureaucrats assigned are more in conceptual awe (Don McKellar) and itching horniness (Kriten Stewart) of Tenser’s body art than aware that they are launching a new and grotesque means of state surveillance. And an even further future of the human body is suggested, with the movie opening with a plastic-eating boy killed by his mother because, we learn, his organs are a new kind—a kind which can digress synthetic material.
If you think that’s a lot of exposition and lore, that’s in fact what much of this stripped-to-its-bones film is like: introductions of and conversations about bodies and art, organs and their usage. It’s a world, a future, where everything has faded away except the human body, and it becomes the locus of all intrigue, control, arousal, speculation, expression, and hope.
This isn’t just a film where everybody talks about these things, the conversations share an almost equal importance with the film’s material bodies, squishy organs and sculptural body-facilitating devices. Words and ideas bandied about are the film's other action—other, that is, than cutting up and presenting the human body. The nature of, and our interpretation and desire for, the body, its cataloging, its enjoyment, its mortality, and perhaps its evolution is the one true subject for all. What’s happening in the greater world in this dilapidated future matters not. In this aspect, as well of its end-of-the-world spareness, the film calls to mind Jim Jarmusch’s more mannered Only Lovers Left Alive, in which two lonesome boho-hipster vampire artists seem to be dwindling away ever more each night in the ruins of modern Detroit. Here, the only concern is for the body and what it means, or can mean.
Those expecting much drama or indeed conventional horror from all the body talk and bloody body exploration will come away disappointed—but they will be missing the point about this superb work of lean cinematic poetry. Cronenberg needs little more than bare sets, a handful of odd objects, and great actors that, with a comic twinkle, embody a true belief that flesh and its concerns reign supreme. If too much of the conversation around Cronenberg inevitably feels tethered to the sub-genre of body horror, this film, like Maps to the Stars, emphasizes his supremely precise handling of actors, their faces and presence becoming their own enthralling sculptures in a world of body-fascination, as can be seen in Stewart’s erotic fandom, Seydoux’s careful artistic and affectionate ambivalence, and above all in Mortensen’s sorrowful, exhausted portrayal of an artist as intrinsically sick or dying from the very nature of his art. There is some intrigue—with both Tenser and Caprice teased into new directions of their surgical art, and Scott Speedman as the dead boy’s father who wants to reveal his evolved organs to the world—but it mostly seems there so as to place these actors in spare, dingy surroundings—sometimes plugged into wonderfully chintzy and skeletal sleeping, eating, and surgical devices—in order to discuss their fascination with body parts and cuttings, the value achieved by such art, and where this art and indeed the human body may go into the future, hand-in-bloody-hand. Ultimately, Crimes of the Future is a drama that is about the nature, destructiveness, and allure of art, one that ties it irrevocably to human existence and mortality.
Perhaps this surprisingly supple tone of end-of-days exhaustion and dissipation, and of searching for ecstasy and satisfaction in gestures of self-annihilation echoes Cronenberg’s own weariness (his NFT was, after all, about him discovering his own corpse). But then again, right before Cannes the director announced the production of a new picture. So we should gratefully postpone the end of the (Cronenbergian) world, count on more horrors to come.